Saturday, August 27, 2016


Can cyber diplomacy replace traditional diplomats and help us get a handle on the world’s most complicated problems?

August 27, 2016, 2:00 AM IST Narain D Batra in TOI Edit Page | Edit Page, Tech, World | TOI

Social media has become diplomacy’s second self, “a significant other”, according to a recent report by Burson-Marsteller, a global PR company. Social media, Twitter in particular, has become a diplomatic weathervane as well as a research kit to analyse global trends.

Today social media, according to the report, has become the first and foremost thought of world leaders, governments, diplomats, and civil society groups. Savvy diplomats feel that social media provides them with a platform for unrestricted communication with targeted groups.

Can cyber diplomacy replace the role of traditional diplomats? What do diplomats do? They do public diplomacy, of which cyber diplomacy is a newer version, to create goodwill and shape the international political and social environment. They do network building for information gathering and create country specific knowledge to advance trade and economic interests.
Most of all they confront and try to solve what is called “wicked problems”. The wicked problem concept comes from management science and was first systematically developed by C West Churchman, Horst Rittel, Melvin Webber and others in the late 70s and early 80s. Since then the concept has been applied in many fields including diplomacy.

A wicked problem is difficult to solve or unsolvable because of its complexities, because of its co-dependence on other problems, because of unknown factors impacting it, so that when you try to solve it, other problems emerge and the problem becomes more complicated. Some wicked problems are unsolvable, but what is unsolvable today might find a solution in the future.

Consider this: On the night of April 14-15, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a government secondary school in Nigeria. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign launched on Twitter and Facebook afterwards went viral. It compelled world leaders to confront the problem. But as of today it has not gotten most of the schoolgirls back.

It’s a wicked problem because Boko Haram does not care for social media. It’s networked with other Islamic militant organisations such as al-Qaida and ISIS that have been relentlessly carrying out terrorist attacks including San Bernadino, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Bangladesh and a most sacred mosque in Saudi Arabia. And there’ll be more to come.

Vietnam War was a wicked problem because so many stakeholders, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China and the US, apart from blood-soaked Vietnam itself, were involved. Television brought the war to our living rooms and made it more complicated. Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger conducted tough diplomatic negotiations to end one of the most tragic and unwinnable wars in history.

Diplomacy is hard work. But today US-Vietnam public diplomacy is very effective. You can see its effect in trade relations, and Vietnam’s proposed membership in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Iran was a most wicked problem. Behind the diplomatic faces of John Kerry and Iran’s Javed Zarif, there were hosts of nuclear experts, who worked day and night to break the logjam. Has the problem been solved? Israel and Arab countries as well as many Americans are not so sure.

Cyber diplomacy might have played some role in persuading doubting Americans that the nuclear deal is worth a try and if Iran backed out, sanctions will be re-imposed. Recently it was announced that Iran would buy 100 planes from Boeing. Price tag: $25 billion or so. Perhaps this is the time for Boeing corporate diplomats to take over.

Climate change is an extremely wicked problem. The Paris Agreement, which was adopted last December and signed by 177 nations and will begin in 2020, is not a solution. It is only an intervention. Cyber diplomacy by governments and civil society organisations could certainly keep alive awareness of the problem; but the problem is so wicked that it will require a transformative, technology based, sustainability revolution to make Beijing and New Delhi breathable again.

Cyber diplomacy can be used effectively to build up Asian public opinion to keep China from asserting exclusive control over the South China Sea in the light of the Hague International tribunal ruling rejecting China’s claim. But cyber diplomacy will not be enough. Whatever US and Asian governments, civil society organisations and global corporations do, their actions must be wedded to clear strategic objectives of keeping the South China Sea free and open as is the Indian Ocean.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Theatre of the absurd
Narain D Batra
| 19 June, 2016

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has created a mesmerising political “theatre of the absurd” that has produced a mass following and further polarised a deeply divided America. A paranoid American President with racist animus and religious bigotry can be more dangerous to the world than Islamic State militants. You can drone a militant to oblivion, whether he is in the badlands of Pakistan, Yemen, or Syria. But neither the US Congress nor the Judiciary, co-equals in power, can do much to control an unprincipled, whimsical man, who, once into the White House, becomes the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world. The checks-and-balances system does not always work
Trump’s irrational rhetorical exuberance, outrageous stage performance, aggravating “truthiness” and the use of personal insults as a political weapon about his myriad fallen Republican opponents have made them look silly.
Big donors include the super rich such as New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Florida shopping magnate Mel Sembler, Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks and casino billionaire Sheldon Anderson, among others. This is an amazing metamorphosis of public opinion in favour of Trump, the man who claims to be the only person who can save America.
For some Americans, “Make America Great Again” is a powerful call for nation rebuilding, as has been the Islamic militants cry of “Allahu Akbar” for returning to the glory of the Prophet Mohammed.
From the very beginning, Trump barged onto television screens like the rhinoceros in Eugene Ionesco’s play; and, gradually, even the most conservative thinker of the Reagan Republican tradition, almost everyone, is becoming a Trump believer.
 Governor Nikki Haley (of Indian origin), Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Senator John McCain (whom Trump called a non-heroic Vietnam Prisoner of War hero), and Peter King of Long Island, who called Trump an ignoramus, have found enough rationale to support the nominee. Senator Marco Rubio, who roared like a lion and belittled everything about Trump, is scampering like a mouse to be on the man’s right side, while House speaker Paul Ryan held back from his support of Trump. In the play Rhinoceros, the protagonist, Berenger, is the sole person left who refuses to join the mass conversion to Rhinoceroses (the Nazis). But Ryan is no Berenger and has bowed and succumbed to the rising power of Trump. Politics before principles!
The herding of the people into a Trump mass following, as happened in Ionesco’s play, is almost complete. It is not something unprecedented. It happened during the Bolshevik Revolution when Lenin ruled the Russian mind; and the rise of Nazism in Europe; and not long ago, when we were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. We wanted to believe in the “truthiness” of the moment as persuasively presented by General Colin Powell, US Secretary of State under President George W Bush.
Today, some Americans want to believe that the Trump Wall, for which Mexico will be forced to pay if Trump becomes President, will save them from the Mexican hordes, rapists, and drug dealer; China will be rolled back and jobs will return to America; and Islamic militants will be obliterated.
Trump’s misogyny and indulgence for women (he owned Miss Universe and Miss USA Pageants, which he sold in 2015) have been no different from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. The body-builder movie actor, “Kaalifornia Terminator Governator”, in a budget session in the California legislature on 17 July 2014, derided his opponents, “If they don’t have the guts to come up here in front of you and say, ‘I don’t want to represent you, I want to represent those special interests, the unions, the trial lawyers...’ if they don’t have the guts, I call them girlie men.” Despite being married to a celebrity Kennedy woman, Maria Shriver, it took him years before the non-girlie man had the guts to admit that he had fathered a child with Mildred Patricia Baena, his Mexican-American housekeeper. In 2005 he suggested that California seal its borders with Mexico. Trump’s Mexican Wall is the rebirth of Schwarzenegger’s bizarre idea.
Donald Trump is the latter-day version of Arnold Schwarzenegger and is much more seductive and dangerous. Few politicians have used the English language as a weapon for the total destruction of enemies as Trump has done. Like a master propagandist, he uses language that is memorable and subversive. Like a negative adman, he keeps up the jingle of insults: crooked Hillary; little Marco Rubio; Cruz, “the worst liar, crazy or very dishonest. Perhaps all three”.
He addresses his audience in a conversational tone; and, then suddenly bursts into a thunderclap, rebuking his opponents. His condemnation of Muslims has been so intense and effective that many Americans are rattled by the proposed resettlement of Syrian refugees in their towns. And CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who rushed to air the documentary, “Why do they hate us?” did not help much to reduce the prevailing negative sentiments against Muslims, whom Trump wants to bar from entering the USA.
Like Schwarzenegger, Trump, despite his transgressions, is a charming public man. But Schwarzenegger’s shenanigans were limited to California. Trump will occupy the world stage if he becomes President. Can Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, annihilate Trump’s theatre of the absurd that has become so meaningful to so many Americans? Can the world afford a maverick in the White House?
The writer, author of the First Freedoms And America’s Culture Of Innovation, is a professor at Norwich University.

Copyright ND Batra 2010